[CROWD NOISE] SPEAKER 1: Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Bailey Hall. We ask that you take this opportunity to notice the emergency exit nearest your seat. And out of consideration for your fellow patrons and the speaker on stage, please refrain from using electronic devices, including cell phones and laptop computers during this event. The Annual Cornell University Block Party has been moved indoors, due to the weather, to Robert Purcell Community Center and Appel Commons. From 5 to 8 PM, all new students are welcome to come and enjoy music, games, and a free lobster bake. Thank you for your attention, and enjoy the presentation.
RICHARD POLENBERG: Well, I hope that you can all hear me. Welcome to Cornell University. Welcome to the Freshmen Reading Project.
My name is Richard Polenberg. I'm a member of the History department. I've been teaching at Cornell for about 45 years. And so probably if your parents were students here, I may very well have taught them also.
I have a lot to say about this book and about Doctorow and Homer and Langley. There's certainly not going to be time for questions at the end, and it would be too difficult, given the numbers that are here. But when I'm done talking, I'll stay around. And if any of you have any questions or comments, I'll be happy to listen to you or to try to answer anything that you might ask.
So EL Doctorow-- his initials, you know, stand for Edgar Lawrence, was born in 1931 in New York City. So he turns 80 years of age this year. In the last 50 years or so, he's published, altogether, 11 novels, a play, several books of short stories and essays, taught at a number of colleges and universities. Many, in fact, most of his novels deal with historical themes.
Probably the best known is Ragtime, published in 1975, which was made into a film. And also into a play-- it was made into a musical, and in fact, has been performed here at the Hangar Theater here in Ithaca this summer. Although Ragtime is a work of fiction, it includes historical characters such as Emma Goldman, Harry Houdini, Henry Ford, JP Morgan, Booker T. Washington, and Sigmund Freud.
And given his use of history, it's not surprising that in Homer and Langley there are references to actual historical figures and of course, to many actual events. In fact, Doctorow has taken many liberties with the life stories of the two main characters, Homer and Langley Collier. In reality, as I'm sure you know, Homer was born in 1881 and his younger brother Langley in 1885. They both died in 1947. And they lived in a townhouse on Fifth Avenue and 128th Street in Manhattan in a home that their father purchased in 1909.
But Doctorow has changed all of this around in his novel. First of all, he reverses the order of their births. He makes Homer the narrator of the story and so, the younger of the two brothers. Also, he relocates their house, moving it 50 blocks to the south and to the Upper West Side.
He makes homer the one who plays the piano, where in reality, it was his brother Langley who was the pianist. He has Homer lose his sight as a teenager, rather than as he actually did, in his 50s. And he makes them younger. He does it by perhaps 20 years or so, and that enables him to extend their lives until at least 1980 and allows him to comment on historical events in the 1950s, '60s, '70s, and into 1980, which, of course, was long after they were already dead.
Well, contrary to what some of you may think, this book was not chosen for the Freshman Reading Project as a way to get you to keep your dorm rooms neat and tidy. You should, of course, keep them neat and tidy. But this book wasn't chosen for that purpose.
And why it actually was chosen isn't entirely clear to me. I had nothing to do with the choice. It's certainly not Doctorow's best work. And while it received many favorable reviews on its publication, it also received many negative reviews. The New York Times noted it was quote, "simply a depressing tale of two shut ins." End quote.
But if the favorable reviews seem to me to be-- and they're quoted at the front of the book, you know-- if they seem to me a little bit too favorable, that negative comment is, I think, overly harsh. Because the book does offer a commentary, actually an interesting, I think, and insightful commentary, on many of the most important developments in American history in the 20th century, at least from World War I up to the 1980s.
So since it's likely that many of the historical events that Doctorow mentions, sometimes even briefly, may not be familiar to many of you, it probably makes sense for me to say a little bit about them. And to point out that many of the things that Doctorow talks about shows what can only be called, I think, the dark side of the American past. Much of his criticism is directed at trends in the US, some of it even at worldwide trends. But let me just indicate some of the things he's critical of, and then I'll talk about a number of points that he makes during the book.
He pays a great deal of attention to the inhumanity of war. It's destructive, rather than its glorious consequences. To xenophobia, that is the fear and hatred of foreigners, those who are different. He talks about racism, as in the incarceration of Japanese-Americans during World War II, and of course, the murder of black children in church during the Civil Rights era.
He talks about the prevalence of crime in America, in American life, and police corruption that goes along with it. He talks about the anti-Semitism that produced the Holocaust during World War II and the insanity of an endless and ongoing arms race. He talks about the presidential lawbreaking that took place in the case of Richard Nixon-- not only in Nixon's case, but especially in that case. And he talks about the religious fanaticism that could give rise, or was exemplified, I should say, in mass suicides.
He talks about the connivance of the American government in the assassination of innocent people, including nuns, who were seeking only to do God's work here on Earth. And even the counterculture, the hippies don't get off lightly. You know, there are many other examples that could be cited as well.
But what I'm going to do in the talk today is focus on 10 of these incidents and sort of talk about what Doctorow does with them in the book. And then try to indicate what this has to do with Doctorow's view of American society, American politics, American foreign policy, and war making today, right now, this minute. But let's begin with some of the things that Doctorow talks about in the book.
And the first, of course, is the use of poison gas, or mustard gas, as it was known during World War I. On page 21 of the book, as you remember, Doctorow writes that when Langley returns from World War I, he was a different man. Quote. "His voice was a kind of gargle. And he kept coughing and clearing his throat. He couldn't sing any longer. And he had"-- cellphone, sorry-- "and he had scars on his back."
He'd been exposed to mustard gas. And so he returns completely disillusioned with the idea that war ever does any good or ever accomplishes anything. Well, mustard gas, you know, is a chemical agent that attacked the skin and eyes. It was used first in World War I by the German army against the British and French soldiers. But by the following year, the British had developed it, and they were using it also.
It wasn't usually lethal, but it caused terrible blistering and damaged one's lungs. Your eyes would become sore. You'd begin to vomit. And it could cause internal and external bleeding. It could also attack a cell's DNA and could lead, in the long run, to cancer and to children with birth defects.
You know, when I joined the History department in 1966, the chair of the department was a man named Frederick Marcham. Fred had been born in 1898. He fought in the British army during World War I. And he was gassed and spent a good deal of time in the hospital after the war.
He later came to Cornell, took his PhD, and taught here for many, many years until his retirement. But even later on in his life, in the 1950s, he suffered a relapse as a result of what he'd been exposed to during the war. It was really a dreadful thing that was being used.
Here's how one nurse, Vera Britain, described what it did. This was in her memoirs. "Great mustard-colored blisters, blind eyes, all sticky and stuck together, always fighting for breath with voices a mere whisper, saying that their throats are closing, and they know they will choke." Well, so dreadful were the effects of poison gas, so great the fear of retaliation, that neither Nazi Germany nor the Allies used it during World War II.
That however, did not stop Saddam Hussein from employing it against the Kurds in northern Iraq in Halabja, the village of Halabja, in 1988 since he didn't fear retaliation. And the estimates are that in his attacks, 5,000 people died and more than 65,000 were injured. You know, the United States maintained its own supply of poison gas for nearly a century, presumably replenishing it, and finally disposing of the last one ton container of the substance in November 2010. Less than a year ago-- that's when we finally got rid of our last container of poison gas at the Pine Bluff arsenal in Arkansas, the last of more than 3,700 one ton containers in the US stockpile.
Well, for EL Doctorow, mustard gas perfectly symbolized the horror of war, its insanity, its inhumanity, and well it should. "I will not parade," Langley says, talking about the war. "It is for idiots."
War is for idiots, which is what Doctorow is saying. That perfectly captures Doctorow's view of war, the phony patriotism that he believes accompanies it. It's for idiots, he thinks, all of it is just for idiots.
Well, just a few pages before mentioning poison gas, Doctorow talks about a second issue, the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918 which, Homer reports in the novel, took the lives of both his father and mother. The illness, Doctorow says, was, quote, "Like some great predatory bird which swooped down and took off both our parents." Actually, their father, Dr. Hermann Livingston Collier, died in 1923-- not of the Spanish flu-- died in 1923. And their mother, Susan Gage Frost Collier, in 1929, in her early 70s.
But Homer, in the novel, reports that they both choke to death in a matter of hours. And that, in fact, is an accurate description of what the Spanish flu would do to people. It was a pandemic that took the lives of at least 50 million people around the world, possibly even twice that number-- 50 million, maybe twice that number.
More than 1 and 1/2 million American soldiers arrived in Europe in 1918, when the disease was rampant. And inevitably, many caught it and brought it back to the United States. More than 25% of the American population came down with the disease. And approximately 675,000 Americans died in the flu epidemic in 1918 and '19, either of the flu itself or of its most frequent complication, pneumonia, which was often a consequence of it.
It was not only the awesome toll, but the nature of the disease that made people so jittery. It wasn't small children who were most susceptible, or even the elderly, but it was people in their 20s, people aged 25 to 30, those were the ones among whom the disease was most common. And it struck without warning. And actually the disease took more or less the course that Doctorow describes in the book.
There was no cure for it. There was no treatment for it. Patients became delirious, running fevers up to 104 or 105 degrees, coughing and spitting blood or having it gush from their nostrils. Death, when it came, often resulted simply from choking. There were, indeed, hardly enough doctors and nurses to care for the sick, hardly enough morticians and gravediggers to bury the dead.
One of the victims of the Spanish flu, by the way, was Willard Straight. So think about that the next time you walk into Willard Straight Hall. He caught the illness in France and died in December 1918 when he was 38 years old.
Well, Doctorow's account is historically quite accurate. Here's what he writes, as you remember, I'm sure. "Burying people was a roaring business at this time.
The usual unctuous formalities were dispensed with, and corpses were transported speedily to their graves by men whose muffled voices led me to understand they were wearing gauze masks." There are actually some things, I think you can find on the web, films of people walking around during the flu epidemic of 1918. And you see people wearing gauze masks in, largely, a futile effort to prevent them from catching this terrible illness.
Well, the third issue that Doctorow deals with is the big Red Scare of 1919. He finds a way, early in his narrative, to bring up this event, which showed America at its worst, at its most fearful, at its most willing to violate civil liberties, this Red Scare in 1919 and 1920, this overarching fear of radicalism, of communism, of subversion, of revolution. On pages 53 to 55, he has Langley fall briefly in love with a woman named Anna, who is a dedicated radical.
He even wants to marry her. But she believes in free love. That is, she is opposed to the institution of marriage itself. And it's true that many radicals, and especially anarchists, were at the time. Langley doesn't really care about her politics. He comments, "She's some kind of socialist, anarchist, anarchosyndicalist communist." She's not really interested in the fine gradations here.
But the affair ends, you know, when she's arrested, deported to Soviet Russia. And Langley invites Homer to go to the pier to wave goodbye as her boat departs. Of course, they can't get very close, because they're held back by a police cordon. But they hear the deportees singing "The Internationale," the socialist anthem, as the boat departs. And pretty soon, the police start beating up their friends who had come to say goodbye.
Well, all of this that Doctorow mentions refers to the so-called Palmer Raids, launched in November 1919 and January 1920 by the Attorney General, A. Mitchell Palmer. Palmer was a Quaker, and he was known to his supporters as the Fighting Quaker. To his enemies, he was known as the Quaking Fighter, so take your choice.
Anyway, the raids followed nearly a year of social turmoil in the United States, strikes by steel workers, coal miners, policemen in Boston. There were many bomb scares-- actually, a few bombs exploded. They were sent through the mails by anarchists, causing terrible injuries.
In these raids, the Palmer Raids, police swooped down on radical headquarters in more than 30 cities, arrested between 3,000 and 4,000 people, many of whom were held with no evidence against them. And most were eventually released, but the government ended up deporting 556 individuals, all of them immigrants who had not become citizens and were therefore classed as aliens. The most famous [INAUDIBLE] took place on a ship called the Beaufort, labeled the Soviet Ark, in December 1919, 249 deportees on it, including the famous anarchists Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman.
Well, Doctorow uses this incident to portray the xenophobia, the pervasive fear of foreigners and radicals that afflicted the United States. He says that Homer was sickened, quote, "by the application of official brute behavior by the police." And he says-- and Langley says, when they get back home, "there's no such thing as an armistice." That is to say, there, of course, was an armistice between the nations at war. What Langley means, of course, is that there is no armistice in the ongoing, persistent class warfare in the United States.
Now there's a fourth issue that Doctorow talks about, a fourth historical issue, as well. Shortly before discussing the deportation of radicals, he brings up Prohibition. That is, or more exactly, the speakeasies, the private clubs where you could go to buy alcohol when it was illegal. It became illegal as I'll show in a minute, say in a minute, after 1920.
And this thing, Prohibition, perfectly represents the hypocrisy Doctorow finds in the American past. As he writes on page 44, "In these peculiar nights of Prohibition, the law only had to say no drinking to get everybody plastered." That sort of sums it up in one sentence.
While Prohibition outlawed the sale and manufacture of intoxicating beverages, but it didn't outlaw the drinking of liquor if you'd bought it before the law went into effect. It was a constitutional amendment approved by Congress, the 18th Amendment. It was approved in 1919, but was to take effect one year later, on January 1st, 1920. So you could spend that year, if you wanted to, storing up however much liquor you could afford.
A further act of Congress, the Volstead Act, named for a Tennessee congressmen, defined intoxicating as anything with an alcoholic content of at least one half of 1%. Well, those who favored Prohibition said it would usher in a bright new day. You would have great moral, social, and medical benefits.
It would eliminate poverty. It would eliminate disease. It would eliminate immorality. That was the argument on behalf of it.
And while Prohibition surely had some beneficial effects, within about a decade, the general feeling was that it did more harm than good. There were simply too many ways to evade it, too much money to be made evading it, especially by gangsters. Passing laws designed to produce moral behavior in the absence of any widespread consensus that the proscribed behavior, that is drinking liquor, was immoral, just didn't seem to work. Instead, it backfired.
And in the end, it bred a cynical disrespect for the law. And this was illustrated by the speakeasies, where you could buy liquor behind closed doors. So someone said that you could describe the history of the United States-- after Prohibition passed-- in just 11 words, Columbus, Washington, Lincoln, Volstead, two flights up and ask for Gus. The two flights up were in the speakeasy. Gus was the guy who was behind the door who would open it for you.
Anyway, Doctorow brings up the topic as a way of pointing to the unpleasant side of the American past. The failed experiment that illustrated not only class bias, since well-to-do people, as I mentioned, could purchase all the liquor they wanted before January 1st, 1920, and drink undisturbed in the privacy of their own homes or clubs. But what he's after is the puritanical streak in American culture, the attempt to force people to conform, an attempt, of course, that ended, at least officially, with the repeal of Prohibition by constitutional amendment in 1933.
As the story moves forward, Doctorow brings up still a fifth issue, and that is the relocation of Japanese-Americans in World War II. Now World War II, you know, is often called the Good War. There are even books about it called the Good War. And even Doctorow concedes, at one point, it was a war, quote, "where evil could justifiably be assigned."
Nevertheless, he focuses on one of the most tragic aspects of American involvement, the widespread hatred and fear of Japanese-Americans in this country and the incarceration of those living on the West Coast in relocation centers, our World War II version of concentration camps. You remember that in the novel, Mr. and Mrs. Hoshiyama, a middle aged couple come to work for the brothers. And although they're thoroughly assimilated-- and even are American citizens since they were born in the United States-- after the attack on Pearl Harbor, they're threatened with attacks by their neighbors. And so they come to live with Homer and Langley.
Soon the FBI comes to arrest them. Of course, they haven't done anything wrong. The only thing wrong, of course, is their Japanese ancestry-- "wrong" in quotation marks. In fact, it was the Japanese-Americans on the West Coast, not those in New York City or in the East, who were rounded up in early 1942 and herded into relocation centers.
There were, in 1941, 127,000 people of Japanese ancestry in the United States, 90% of whom lived on the West Coast, 93,000 of them in California alone. The Issei, those who had migrated before the Exclusion Act of 1924 ended this migration, numbered 47,000. They were ineligible for American citizenship. And so as soon as we went to war with Japan, no matter how long they'd been living here, no matter how loyal or patriotic they were, they were technically classified as enemy aliens.
Their children, like in this novel, the Hoshiyamas, the Nisei, who numbered 80,000, were in fact, American citizens, because they had been born in the United States. And if you're born in the United States, you're an American citizen, regardless of your parent's citizenship. Yet in the spring of 1942, all Japanese-Americans on the West Coast, citizens and aliens alike, were rounded up, sent to the relocation centers in 10 Western states, where most of them remained for the duration of the war.
In other words, the Roosevelt administration treated Japanese-American citizens as if the Bill of Rights had been repealed, or maybe never been passed in the first place. The administration claimed that racial ties predisposed Japanese-Americans to behave disloyally and that the absence of any overt acts of sabotage, only because they hadn't committed any, only proved that an invisible deadline was approaching. And even worse, the Supreme Court sanctioned this whole dreadful thing in 1944 in a famous case, Korematsu versus United States. It was a divided vote on the Court. The majority supported relocation. One of the dissenting judges, Justice Frank Murphy, said the decision amounted to a legalization of racism, which is exactly what it amounted to.
Well, Doctorow says on page 88 that the FBI agents were quote, "impervious to reason," doing what was horrifying in a perfectly routine way. And actually, that description is not a bad description of US public opinion during the war. Langley says of the FBI, and it could also be said of the Roosevelt administration, and maybe even a majority of the Supreme Court-- "these people ignore the Constitution whenever they so choose." Quote, unquote.
OK, we're moving along. That's five of the things that I wanted to talk about. And here we come to something else that Doctorow brings up in his view of the American past-- the US response to the Holocaust. Hardly has he finished talking about the fate of the Hoshiyamas than he raises another issue that demonstrates the vast gulf between the concept of a good war and the reality of a pretty bad one, the failure of the United States to attempt to help Jewish victims of the Holocaust.
You remember that he has a man named Alan Roses, who had fought with Langley in World War I, come knocking on the door seeking financial support for a campaign to quote, "buy freedom for Jewish families by paying off Nazi officials and to try to arouse public opinion to force the Roosevelt administration to take some kind of action." Doctorow comments-- it's Langley's voice, but Doctorow is saying this-- on the government's do nothing policy, it's unwillingness to make a deal to gain the inmates' release, or to quote, "bomb the trains, disrupt the operation." And he implies the unwillingness to do either shows that the US, quote, "is just not that crazy about Jews." End quote.
Well, in fact, many proposals were made during the war to aid Jewish victims, proposals made to the US government. But government officials, mainly in the State and War departments always found reasons why these proposals were impractical. Some suggested that there might be a ransoming of Jews by offering money or supplies, such as trucks or tractors in return for their release. But of course to do this, you'd have to negotiate with Nazi leaders, and you might even strengthen the German war effort. And so those proposals never made any headway at all.
The most concrete proposal, though, was made by some Jewish leaders. And it was that the United States bomb the gas chambers and the crematoria at Auschwitz, the scene of mass extermination of Jews, or at the very least bomb the railroad lines, the train lines that were carrying additional victims there. Auschwitz was located in southwestern Poland, and by the summer of 1944, was within easy reach of American airplanes.
The plea that summer, in June 1944, to bomb the rail lines was transmitted to the War Department, but rejected on the grounds that it would be of very doubtful efficacy and would divert air support from more crucial operations. Many historians, not all, but many have concluded these explanations were just excuses. And a report, even in the Treasury Department, the Roosevelt administration's own Treasury Department, was entitled, On the Acquiescence of This Government in the Murder of the Jews. It charged the State Department not only with a willful failure to act, but with willful attempts to prevent action from being taken to rescue Jews from Hitler.
Now no one argues, no historian argues, that the US had the power to save or rescue a large number of the millions of victims of the Holocaust. It does appear, though, that some small number might have been saved. And it's that possibility that leads Langley to ask Homer what happens in light of the American failure to act-- "to your war story of good versus evil." What happens, of course, is that the story simply collapses, in Doctorow's view.
Well, Doctorow then turns to a seventh issue, a somewhat different one. Here he takes up this really nice story about the hippies and the anti-Vietnam mobilization in the 1960s. In the space of just a few pages, he alludes to some passing events in the '50s-- the Korean War, the arms race between the US and the USSR, the hearings on crime in the United States by Estes Kefauver that were televised.
When he comes to the 1960s, he's especially critical of the US involvement in Vietnam. Using Homer's voice, he says that, quote, "Another damnable war had sprung up." That's on page 140.
And he talks about the anti-war demonstrations in Central Park on the Great Lawn. I think the one he's talking about must-- there were many demonstrations in Central Park. But the one he must be talking about is the famous one in October 1969. Well, by 1969, Richard Nixon had replaced Lyndon Johnson in the White House. The draft had ended. US troops were beginning to leave Vietnam.
So this demonstration was designed to pressure the administration into speeding up the pace of withdrawal. But while it was organized by critics of the war, Doctorow gives them relatively little attention. Rather, he focuses on the hippies who attended the rally and the brothers meeting with them, and the month or so that they resided in the house with Homer and Langley.
As Doctorow tells it, Homer and Langley's bizarre appearance, their long, unkempt hair, their old boots, their ragged sweaters, fit right in with the way the hippies looked and dressed. And so several of the young people crash at their house. You know, find sort of common cause with them and stay there for a few weeks.
And he pokes good-natured fun at their language. You know the famous phrases of the '60s, oh, wow, put down, turn on, you know, all these phrases that people used to use. Their clothing, the boots, the fringe jackets, the beaded headbands, the tie-dyed shirts, the vegetarian diets, their sexual promiscuity, and of course, their use of drugs-- and on page 147, he notes the brothers hear one of the so-called hippies, Jo Jo, playing the guitar, and singing a song that begins, "Good Morning, Teaspoon."
Well, that song is a song called "Mainline Prosperity Blues." And it was written by Richard Farina and recorded with his wife Mimi Farina, who was Joan Baez's sister, recorded in 1965. Richard Farina, as some of you know, and all of you know, right, in a second, Richard Farina was a student at Cornell University from 1955 to 1959. He left, though, without getting a degree. He was involved in some early protest activities while he was here. He was briefly suspended. He later made several recordings. But he died, tragically, in a motorcycle accident in April 1966, only 29 years of age. His wife, Mimi Farina, Mimi Baez, died a few years ago.
Well, Doctorow has a lot of fun with the lyrics to "Mainline Prosperity Blues." He writes that Langley thought teaspoon had to do with breakfast tableware and that Homer thinks it's a term of endearment for a lover, teaspoon. Of course, teaspoon is really a name for a measurement of cocaine or heroin. You know, that's what the song is all about. "Good morning, teaspoon. Teaspoon, give me back my brain" is how it begins. Let's hear just the first verse of this song by Richard Farina that Doctorow refers to.
[MUSIC - RICHARD FARINA, "MAINLINE PROSPERITY BLUES"] Good morning, teaspoon. Teaspoon, give me back my brain. Hello, reflection, you don't look the same. Good morning, sweet companion. Pardon me if I've forgotten your name.
RICHARD POLENBERG: That last line good morning, sweet companion, I believe I've forgotten your name-- also the 1960s. Well, you know, it's worth mentioning that Doctorow's daughter, Caroline Doctorow, is a folk singer, a very good folk singer. And in 2008, she brought out an entire compact disk of 13 songs by Richard Farina, including "Mainline Prosperity Blues." So if you want to go online or buy her album, you can hear Doctorow's daughter doing her version, a very nice version of this Richard Farina song.
So the-- incidentally, I might mention that the Farina song is only one of those that Doctorow mentions along the way. Shortly after talking about this, he has Langley-- after talking about "Good Morning, Teaspoon," he has Langley launch into a discussion of corporate greed.
And he says that Langley burst into song. "Oh, the banks are made of marble with a guard at every door. And the vaults are stuffed with silver that the miners sweated for." That's the first verse of a song written in 1950 by a man named Les Rice, an upstate New York neighbor of Pete Seeger's, and popularized by Pete Seeger and The Weavers. Let's hear Pete Seeger, on the 12 string guitar, doing just the beginning of "The Banks of Marble." So when we look back on it in the book, you'll hear what it sounds like.
[MUSIC - PETE SEEGER, "THE BANKS OF MARBLE"] I've travelled round this country from shore to shining shore. It really made me wonder, the things I heard and saw. I saw the weary farmer a plowing sod and loam. I heard the auction hammer just a knocking down his home. But the banks are made of marble with a guard at every door. And the vaults are stuffed with silver that the farmer sweated for.
RICHARD POLENBERG: That was Pete Seeger doing the first verse of that song. The other verses talk about the weary minor and the seamen standing idly by the shore. All of them are unemployed or impoverished, while the well-to-do enjoy the fruits of their labor.
I need to tell you that-- I must tell you that 2 and 1/2 years ago, my wife, my son, and I and two or three friends spent an afternoon at Pete Seeger's house, singing with him up in Beacon, New York. The first song that I ever learned to play on the five string banjo when I was about your age-- in fact, exactly your age, I was a freshman in college-- was "The Banks of Marble." And at one point, I asked Pete Seeger-- who was then a mere 89, he's now 92-- I asked him if he remembered that song, and he said, sure.
And he played the guitar, and I played the five string banjo. And we sang and played "The Banks of Marble." And I have to tell you, I shouldn't admit this, but it was the three happiest minutes of my life. It really was.
Anyway so there's Doctorow with "Good morning, teaspoon." And then he fits in "The Banks of Marble." And on the whole, of course, he treats the hippies, who are the embodiment of the counterculture, very sympathetically.
You know what he says? "I envied their unsafe lives," Homer says, that is. And he argues that they were, in their own way, more radical critics of society than even the antiwar civil rights activists. Because they rejected the entire culture, and not just certain aspects of the culture.
Well, now we come to the eighth of these 10 points that I want to make. And things are going to become very grim as we move along. Because eventually, Homer reports, Langley compiles a newspaper file with stories of appalling human behavior. And this incident that I refer to now, of course, is the murder of the black children in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963 during the Civil Rights era.
On page 165, Doctorow notes the 1963 bombing of the Baptist church in Birmingham, in which four black girls were killed while attending Sunday school. One, but only one, of the acts of violence perpetrated by white racists as the Civil Rights movement developed. The names of the victims were Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, and Denise McNair.
Well, the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham took place on Sunday, September 15th, 1963, following a settlement between city authorities and civil rights leaders that looked toward integrating public places in the city. And the church was probably picked as a target because it was a meeting place for the Civil Rights movement. Four white men, members of the Ku Klux Klan, planted a box of dynamite with a time delay under the steps of the church.
A little past 10 o'clock, as 26 children were walking into the assembly room to prepare for a sermon, the title of which is, "The Love That Forgives," the bomb went off, killing the four girls, one of whom was 11 and three of whom were 14, and injuring more than 20 others. All the stained glass windows were destroyed, except one which showed Jesus leading a group of little children.
No one was convicted at the trial that followed. But many years later, in 1977, in fact, the case was reopened. A Klansman was indicted, tried, and convicted and sentenced to life in prison, where he died eight years later. Another one of the perpetrators of this 1963 outrage was not actually tried until 2001, when he was sentenced to life imprisonment.
You know, Richard Farina also wrote a song about this incident. You can find it on Caroline Doctorow's album or on Farina's album. It's called "Birmingham Sunday." It was famously recorded by Joan Baez. And it devotes one stanza to each of the four victims. It's well worth listening to.
So the decade of the 1960s, as Doctorow says, was an appalling period, marked by racist violence and police action against demonstrators. And then we come to a ninth incident-- the mass suicide of 900 people in Guyana in South America in 1978. This is another newspaper story that Langley adds to his collection, the mass suicides caused when, quote, "their leaders said they could no longer tolerate the repression of the outside world." And the only problem Langley has is where to file the story. There are so many such stories.
The references to the horrifying events of November 17th, 1978, in Northwestern Guyana, where followers of the cult leader Jim Jones had established a settlement. The leader of a religious sect, he founded the Peoples' Temple, which gained a considerable following and eventually moved its headquarters to San Francisco. He claimed that he favored something that he termed apostolic socialism and a society of complete racial equality. And so in the '70s, his followers established an outpost in Guyana, and they called it Jonestown.
By 1978, Jones was himself living there. And he convinced his followers there was a conspiracy against them by the US, by the CIA and by the FBI. And so after a visit from a California congressman, Leo Ryan, who seemed to have come up with some residents there who wanted to leave, Jones's followers murdered Ryan.
Jones declared a state of emergency, instructed his followers to take poison, and more than 900 people committed suicide, dying from cyanide poisoning. That included 280 children. Jones himself was either murdered by someone who shot him in the head, or else he may have committed suicide. He was found with a bullet there, but whether he committed suicide first isn't known. Well, Doctorow confesses that this was a one of a kind event, and he has Langley characterize it as insane, lemming-like behavior.
And so we now come to the 10th and last of these episodes that I want to mention, the murder of the nuns in El Salvador in 1980-- four nuns on December 2nd, 1980. You remember that in the novel, the brothers' old acquaintance, Mary Elizabeth Reardon, is one of those who's assassinated. She and three other nuns, Doctorow says, had been raped, shot to death, and left in shallow graves.
And when Homer comments that the nuns had chosen to put themselves in harm's way, Langley replies angrily, it was the US, the United States that had armed those soldiers in El Salvador. They're our savages. The murderers are our savages, he says.
Well, there were indeed four nuns who were murdered in El Salvador. Their names were Jean Donovan, Dorothy Kazel, Maura Clarke, and Ita Ford. Clark and Ford were nuns of the Maryknoll congregation, Kazel, a member of the Ursuline sisters of Cleveland, and Donovan, 27 years old at the time, was a lay missionary. Along with the others, she was providing help to refugees in the ongoing civil war in El Salvador, providing food, shelter, and transportation. And shortly before she was murdered, she wrote to a friend-- this is the real person, the real nun, not in Doctorow's novel.
Quote, "Several times I have decided to leave El Salvador. I almost could except for the children, the poor, bruised victims of this insanity. Who would care for them? Whose heart could be so staunch as to favor the reasonable thing in a sea of their tears and loneliness?"
Well, after picking up her two friends at the airport, she and the others were seized by Salvadoran soldiers, taken to an isolated area, beaten, raped, and murdered. After several years, five of the soldiers who were responsible were arrested, tried, and given prison sentences. By the mid-1990s, with the war in El Salvador finally over, declassified US government records revealed that the State Department had withheld information pointing to the involvement of high level officials in the murders-- Salvadoran officials.
Two generals were indicted. By then, they had retired to Florida, and so they could actually be put on trial in a US court. And they were tried in the year 2000, with the prosecution arguing that they were responsible since the troops under their command had committed the outrages. But they were found not liable for the crimes. Well, Doctorow concludes his account in the book movingly, with Homer remembering how Mary Elizabeth, a character in the novel, used to sit next to him and describe what was taking place in silent movies as he would play the piano accompaniment for the films.
Well, with that episode, Doctorow concludes his survey of 20th century history, or I should say, the more horrifying aspects of that history. Without denying the reality of those horrifying episodes, I should point out that there are other many positive aspects of American history in the 20th century. Doctorow leaves them out-- the success of the civil rights movement in ending legal and political discrimination against black Americans; the success of the feminist movement in ending the same kind of discrimination against women; the work of the Supreme Court in protecting freedom of speech and religion; defending the rights of those accused with crimes; ensuring a one person, one vote standard; decriminalizing birth control and abortion; the policies of the New Deal and Great Society in the fields of social security, health care, unemployment insurance, anti-poverty programs; environmental protection plans that have been put in place, especially since the 1970s. One could give a long list of the other side of things, not the murders, the assassinations, the oppression, the discrimination that Doctorow is talking about.
But Doctorow paints a very depressing picture of the American past. And I think there are many reasons why he does so. And I'll just conclude by giving my take on why I think he's done it. One of those reasons, I think, why Doctorow has written this kind of a book-- maybe not the only one, I'm sure there are many things that go into an author's decision to write a Book-- but one of them may have been his increasingly bitter reaction to the presidency of George Bush, both to its domestic policies, but especially to the war in Iraq and to the public support that those policies received.
Over the years, Doctorow has expressed his anger about the war in many speeches and essays, some of which have become highly controversial. In September 2004, he wrote an essay called "The Unfeeling President." And Doctorow wrote, "I fault this president for not knowing what death is.
He does not suffer the death of our 21-year-olds who wanted to be what they could be. He hasn't the mind for it. He does not mourn. He doesn't understand why he should mourn."
And in a speech in April 2007, not that long ago, to the Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Philosophical Society, Doctorow went even further than in that first speech. He spoke of President Bush's "indifference to truth." Quote, unquote. And here's what he said of the president, I'm quoting. "He has set the national legislative program to run in reverse, as he rescinds, deregulates, dismantles, or otherwise degrades enlightened legislation in the public interest, so that we find ourselves living in a social and cyclic structure of the ghostly past with our great national needs-- health care, education, disaster relief-- going unmet.
The president may speak of the nation in idealistic terms. But his actions demonstrate that he has no real concept of national community. His America, like that of his sponsors, is a population to be manipulated for the power to be had, for the money to be made." End quote.
So it should come as no surprise that Doctorow campaigned for Barack Obama in 2008. Or that it should come as no surprise, either, when President Obama was asked to name his favorite contemporary author, the one he named at the very top of the list was EL Doctorow. It seems to me that the aspects of American society and culture that Doctorow criticizes in Homer and Langley are some of the very things, as he sees it, that produced the Bush administration, the war waged with all of its attendant evils. Homer and Langley might be a story about the past. But as EL Doctorow said in another context, back in 2005, "Whenever you write about the past, obviously you're going to reflect the present."
Well, thank you very much. Thank you for attending and for listening. I'll hang around to talk to you.
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The New Student Reading Project at Cornell University is celebrating its 11th anniversary this year with E.L. Doctorow's novel Homer and Langley.
Homer and Langley provides a fictionalized redaction of the lives of the renowned Collyer brothers, whose story became a New York urban legend. After their parents' death in the flu pandemic of 1918, within the family mansion on Fifth Avenue Homer and Langley compile a world of their own, apart from but intimately and paradoxically connected with the transformative events of twentieth-century American history.